Various Artists - Man Chest Hair [Finders Keepers - 2012]When looking back at its musical legacy, we might think of Manchester as some sort of rock mecca where working class pub-crawlers, artsy bohemians, and eccentric punks all find fame and fortune...
Starting with Elbow, who won the Mercury Music Prize in 2008, and working backward, we come across the likes of Oasis, perhaps the biggest strictly English phenomenon the world will ever see; The Chemical Brothers, who revolutionized electronic DJ music for enjoyment in stadiums; The Stone Roses, who launched their legacy with a record so massive that an entire party subculture built up around it; The Smiths, who gave us Morrissey; The Fall, who gave us Mark E. Smith; New Order & Joy Division, who gave us umpteen Microsoft ads and colorless biopics; Buzzcocks & Magazine, who gave us post-punk; 10cc, who aren’t in love; and of course, Savory Duck, Spider Jive, and Greasy Bear, who gave us hair and sweat and musk.
Wait—what? Those last three are merely a handful of artists featured on Man Chest Hair, a CD or double-LP set described on the cover as “unissued studio demos and rare tracks of hard rock / hairy funk / heavy prog from the tuffest unknown rock groups of greater Manchester.” In other words, this compilation might be suggesting that Manchester’s underground musical legacy started *before* 1977. After much crate digging and barrel scraping, the compilers at Finders Keepers have made a pretty good argument, through 17 tracks (18 on CD) and extensively thorough liner notes which take twice as long to read as it does to play the album. (In addition to supplying the context and history of the bands included, these notes describe the venues and the studios that sparked the scene in Manchester but also reveal such interesting tidbits as the fact that there was a liquor lockdown at the bars in the city proper during much of this era, meaning that a lot of the action centered around the suburbs.)
Yet, at the end of the day what this compilation really illustrates is that rock in the ‘70s—especially after glam broke—became every bit the overblown dead end of machismo that we’ve always known it to be. (The first line sung on the record, from Oscar’s “Good Lovin’ Woman,” says, “I misuse them, I abuse them, and they still come back.”) Much like the way that ‘90s grunge practically murdered rock in the USA, the ‘70s took the male-dominated indulgence of rock musicianship about as far as it could go. Punk, and all the liberation that happened in this era’s wake, simply had to happen... Otherwise, we might still have artists creating straight-faced fantasy anthems like “Dragon Flight” (Savory Duck) or sci-fi sing-alongs like “Nebula” (Grisby Dyke, who once opened for Black Sabbath). These pieces are hard to sit through once, let alone imagine a whole scene where pop-prog music like this was once popular and sought after.
The collection is top heavy with the ugliest, man-chest-hairiest numbers. While “Good Lovin’ Woman” melds hard rock to disco funk, bridging the gap between “Come Together” and “Another One Bites the Dust,” it’s really the only selection with any hallmarks of dance music. The Electric Six would later make a career out of this sound. Urbane Gorilla’s “Ten Days Gone” is a fuzzy garage rocker and Stack Waddy’s “Hunt the Stag” seems to burn out on its own testosterone in a slo-mo Stooges kind of way, and it is this kind of pared-down manic blues sound that was resuscitated so successfully by every second-rate band in the 2000s, from Jet to the Fratellis, that it sounds tired now.
The best stretch of the record plays almost like a distant relative to the Nuggets compilations that documented the late ‘60s. The Way We Live’s “King Dick II,” Spider Jive’s “Crocadilla,” Sweet Chariot’s “Wildside,” Samsun’s “Bringing It All Back Home,” and So On & So Forth’s cover of “Sweet Wine” all have a cool sounding, hipster energy to them that calls to mind much later Manchester phenomena like Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets. But there are some huge missteps here as well: J.C. Heavy’s contribution, with the only female vocalist on the compilation and freaky lo-fi keyboards, was originally assumed to be Krautrock. While the liner notes explain that this is the band that instigated the compilation, their sound just doesn’t fit into its theme.
And that is sort of how the compilation goes. It’s a massive hodgepodge of bands throwing everything at the wall to see if anything sticks, and while Manchester might have been able to contribute dozens of would-be rock gods aping Zeppelin or the Stones or Cream, based on the tracks here it never contributed much to call its own, not until the Sex Pistols came to visit and inspired a whole new generation to go out and do something. But despite its lack of innovation, much of the music showcased here really is highly listenable, the compilation is commendable, and it can even be stunning to see how relevant some of it sounds in a world that hails Jack White as the lone last beacon of ‘70s rock and roll. Richard T Williams